Archive for February 21, 2010

Fasting

I think, unless the Holy Spirit does something very unexpected in the next seven hours, that Tomorrow is going to be a rather public ‘coming out’ for me. Because I’m planning to get up in front of my Church and say this. I’m tired of thinking “I wish my Church had something to say about this” They put me up in that pulpit! Who else was I waiting for?!

May the words of my lips, and the meditations of all our hearts, be now and always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength, and our redeemer. Amen+

So, every year, at the beginning of Lent, we hear this story- in which Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to go without food for 40 days. And as always, this story leaves me with one burning question: WHY WOULD ANYONE WANT TO DO THAT?!?!

Why would anyone choose to go for over a month without eating? I mean… eating is good. It feels good. It’s good for you. And if you stop doing it for long enough- you’ll die. Why would Jesus purposely go out into the desert to be hungry for almost 6 weeks? WHY?

Jesus, of course, is not acting in a vacuum. His choice in this- all his choices- are informed by who he is, where he is, and what has come before. Jesus is a product of his culture, and his faith. And these have something to say about fasting as a religious practice.

While there’s not a lot of specific teaching in the Old Testament about fasting, there are certainly stories where it plays a part. And taken together, these narratives can point us in the direction of how Jesus’ may have understood this radical act.

Fortunately for me, H.A. Brongers, in an article “Feasting and Fasting in Israel in Biblical and Post-Biblical times” did all the legwork of collating all the Old Testament references to fasting, and found that in general, fasts are carried out for 5 purposes: “1) as a sign of grief or mourning, (2) as a sign of repentance and seeking forgiveness for sin, (3) as an aid in prayer, (4) as an experience of the presence of God that results in the endorsement of his messenger, and (5) as an act of ceremonial public worship.”

These 5 purposes boil down to 2 main theological ideas: fasting as repentance for sin and fasting to intensify prayer when seeking God’s favor.

And these ideas presuppose an even more basic truth that underlies all scriptural references to fasting, a truth where we might look for an answer to the question: Why would Jesus do this?

Food- and the eating of it- is one of the most basic and normal parts of human life. This is what we do- this is what all living beings in creation do- we consume. We eat the cow that ate the grass that came from the soil that is made of living things and organic matter from no-longer-living-things and mineral elements from the foundations of the earth. And when we have finished our time of consuming, we will be consumed: Pushing up daisies- that will in turn be consumed by some other living thing. This is the natural order of Creation in all its wonder and carbon-cycling majesty. We are dust. And to dust shall we return. This is the rhythm of life.

Abstaining from eating implies a disruption in that rhythm. And throughout the Old Testament narratives that inform Jesus’ time of fasting- disrupting this good and right and necessary natural order is done to point to something even more necessary: Communion with, and dependence on God.

The prophets have long used fasting and prayer as a… re-set button for the peoples’ right relationship with God. Sort of like calling tech support and getting told, “Have you tried turning it off, and then turning it back on again?”

In the same way that pilgrimage allows the pilgrim to leave an ordinary place, and then come back different- fasting allows the faster to leave the ordinary relationship with Creation, and come back different. Better. Restored.

But, then, Jesus is no ordinary faster. And this story that Luke tells us is no ordinary fast. He is aligning himself with Moses and Elijah, who fasted before him. To a people who know those stories, he is identifiable, in this 40-day fast, as a man deeply connected with those ancient stories of God’s redeeming love for God’s people.

And so it is here, in the early chapters, that Luke tells us of a fast for Jesus that becomes a part of the great story of God’s redeeming love for God’s people- how Jesus succeeds in resisting temptation in the worst of all possible circumstances- physically weak and corporeally famished. He is victorious exactly where Adam and Eve, in the best of all possible paradise conditions, failed. Not by bread alone, but, as the quoted line from Deuteronomy continues, by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

For Adam and Eve, and for Jesus, eating and not-eating is deeply connected, both symbolically and concretely, with right relationship with God. Eating abundantly in the garden when the relationship is whole. Then falling to temptation, and eating. Then cast out of the garden and struggling to eat enough, working to till the land when the relationship is severed. And now, driven by the Spirit, Jesus inverts this. Not eating in the wilderness. Then not-eating in the face of temptation. And restoring right relationship with God.

Although, of course, even this incredibly long 40-day fast is only a small disruption in the live-and-eat, die-and-be-eaten cycle of Creation. The true ‘reset’ and restoration of right relationship- Jesus victory over death itself, is yet to come. And, lest you think I’m making too much of this eating/not-eating business- Jesus specifically invites us to participate in that restored relationship by saying, “take this bread, which is my body, and eat it”. And we do.

Which brings us, at last, to the other question that we bring to all of these ancient texts: what has this to do with us? What has this to do with this gathered group of faithful people who were invited, just 5 days ago, to “Observe a Holy Lent by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and alms-giving.” What has this to do with us, who would spend these 40 days as Jesus spent them… stepping aside from the normal order of things, in order to return to a more whole relationship – to be reconciled with God?

Because that is, all in all, what the whole thing is about: to be reconciled with God. To rediscover something even more necessary than our daily bread: communion with, and dependence on, God.

I don’t know if or how you’ve chosen to observe a Lenten fast this year. If you have, I hope that it may, indeed, be for you a means of drawing closer with God, a means of reconciliation.

But if we do fast, we do it in a time and a place very different from Jesus. The idea of re-establishing a right relationship with Creation or Creator by disrupting the natural rhythm of consuming and being consumed- implies that we regularly maintain a natural rhythm of consuming, and being consumed.

Our reading from Deuteronomy lays out what a natural, normal connection with food might look like: The harvest- the gathering up of stuff of the earth for the purpose of eating it- is marked by thanksgiving, and celebration. It is a moment for remembering the past, and looking to the future. It is a time for joining together with friends and strangers- to celebrate together that the Lord has given sufficient abundance for all.

If that is the hallmark for what “normal” eating might look like, then we fall short.

Far from joining communities together, industrialized agriculture turns food production into a means of further separating rich from poor.

Food technology manipulates our appetites and leaves us echoing Isaiah’s question: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?”

One reality of life in this particular place at this particular time is the painful prevalence of disordered eating. The diagnostic criteria for eating disorders include “being fanatical about weight and diet”, “taking time off work, school or relationships in order to exercise”. “Allowing weight and shape to overly influence how we feel about ourselves” “Feeling we can take control of our lives by taking control of our eating and weight”.

So, while according to 2002 Data from the National Eating Disorder Information Centre, more than 2 million Canadian women have diagnosed eating disorders*—the rest of us are bombarded with dieting advice on how we can adopt many of these same disordered behaviors in order to improve our health. And our daughters are inheriting our broken approach to this simple, basic act of eating. More than 25% of girls in grade 9 and 10 have dieted to try and control their still-growing bodies. And not to be left behind in the field of body dissatisfaction, some 4% their male classmates reported using steroids.

Someone please show me where the reset button is on our “normal” relationship with this basic life-giving act of eating, with the natural rhythms of interconnecting with the Creation by consuming it. We are, I think, in deep need of both a symbolic and a concrete way to ‘reset’ a right relationship with both the Creation that we incorporate into our selves- and the Creator who brought it all into being.

I’m just not sure that more abstaining, more declaring this or that food to be ‘off limits’ is the departure from the normal order of things that we’re looking and longing for.

And if you either think I’m on to something there, or if you think I’m completely and dangerously wrong- I hope you’ll come back Monday night and talk about it. Because I firmly believe that we, who struggle to live out spiritual truths within these corporeal bodies, have something to talk about, there.

We are all of us, here, longing to be reconciled with God. To find some peace in this world. To know that Hope overcomes despair; that life is stronger than death. To know that we are loved.**

“Rest assured”, Luke tells us, “fear not. In the face of temptation, what Adam broke, Jesus has restored”.

In his life, his death, his resurrection… Jesus has accomplished what we ourselves cannot.
“This is my blood of a new covenant” he says, “that sins might be forgiven”.
“Take this bread, which is my body” he says, “and eat it”.
And we do.

Thanks be to God.

*I had to do the math myself.1.5% of women 15-24, which according to these people is (assuming roughly equal gender distribution) close to half of 4,359,100 people. So “more than 2 Million” seemed like a reasonable figure.

**I know, I know. I have a serious sentence fragment problem. I should give up fragments for Lent.

February 21, 2010 at 12:30 am 8 comments


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